No worries?: Jimmie Johnson still solid in Chase after 3rd-place run

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While defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has been far from awful in 2014, he and his No. 48 team have not quite been on their usual, world-beating form.

That made today’s Chase elimination race at Dover International Speedway important for Johnson in the eyes of some observers.

Johnson was likely to advance to the Contender Round fairly easily, but said observers wanted to see if he would make a statement on a track where he’s won nine Sprint Cup races in his career.

Johnson finished third today behind winner Jeff Gordon and runner-up Brad Keselowski in a steady performance. At the same time, he did not lead a lap at Dover for the first time since 2007.

So should we still be worried about Johnson? That’s probably just going to be our question to answer.

As for Johnson himself, he’s just glad to be moving on after finishes of 12th, fifth, and third in the opening Challenger Round.

“These first three races went pretty well,” Johnson said. “I think Chicago was probably the track where we left the most points on the table. Today, we kind of ran, finished where we ran, but we had a decent car – really strong on the long runs but just would lose too much time to make up the deficit that I had there.

“Good solid day today, happy to advance.”

But now comes the aforementioned Contender Round, which begins next weekend at Kansas, continues on to Charlotte, and ends with the mother of all wild cards at Talladega.

Obviously, nobody wants to be forced into a win or (metaphorically) go home situation heading into the ‘Dega crapshoot.

“If I’m one of the guys that wins at Charlotte or Kansas, it’s sure going to make the race at Talladega fun,” Johnson mused about the next three stops on the Chase. “Otherwise, you’re just going to be on pins and needles and stressing like crazy.

“That’s the strategy, really – try to win one of those first two so you can go to Talladega, pull them tight and let it rip.”

A win at Kansas or Charlotte would not only save him from that stress and push him to the Eliminator Round. It would also further legitimize his bid for a record-tying seventh Cup championship.

But as usual, Johnson and Team 48 won’t look too far ahead and will be taking things one step at a time.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.